The blogosphere – a good place to hide (even from yourself)

I’m very doubtful about the concept of genuine community on the Internet, and even more doubtful about whether the attempt is a good thing. Eugene Peterson points out somewhere that a genuine church is a collection of diverse individuals whose unity in Christ somehow manages to triumph over their diversity in almost everything else (age, sex, race, economic circumstances, education, political views, theological views etc. etc.). In contrast, he says, a sect is a community of the like-minded. This, by the way, is one of my big disagreements with churches that ‘stream’ worship services to meet the ‘preferences’ of different groups (age and otherwise): quite apart from the consumer-mentality this teaches, it also tends to produce sects, rather than true communities.

Now a so-called ‘Internet community’ almost always evolves into a sect, in Peterson’s classification. Internet communities tend to form around blogs and tend to reflect the views of the blogger. Not surprisingly, the majority of commentators on any particular blog will be in general agreement with the views of the blogger, and those who are not in agreement quickly find themselves ‘ganged up on’ by the rest (for the record, I have been on both sides of this experience!). Most blogs quickly develop an ‘orthodoxy’ that is rarely challenged by the regulars, which makes these blogs a very comfortable place for the members of the ‘community’. In fact, for some people, they are far more comfortable than the real, flesh-and-blood communities they actually live in. It’s not uncommon for commentators to say things like ‘you people are the only ones who really understand me’ and ‘I get more support here than I do at St. So-and-So’s’.

But of course, the catch is that no one knows if what you are presenting on the blog, either as the author or as a commentator, is the real ‘you’. As Marianne says in the latest BBC production of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘It is what we do, rather than what we say or feel, that makes us who we are’. And in the world of the Internet, no one knows who we really are. I have been described in very generous terms by some people I’ve ‘met’ in the blogosphere, and of course this is very gratifying to my ego and I like it as much as the next person. But the fact is that no one I ‘meet’ on the Internet really knows me. They know what I say, they meet the persona I create for myself (how telling it is that pseudonyms, screen names, and avatars are so popular in the blogosphere!), but they don’t meet the real ‘me’. And, try as I might, it’s almost impossible to avoid creating a deceptively rosy persona for oneself in the anonymous world of the blogosphere. If I’m not careful, I might even begin to believe in it myself! As Jeremiah says, ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’.

I might give the impression on this blog (and in the comments I leave on other blogs) of being a good, conscientious priest, but of course you, my readers, don’t really know whether or not that’s true (unless you happen to be past or present parishioners of mine!). I might give the impression of being a loving husband and father and grandfather, but in order to be really sure that’s the case, you’d need to consult my wife, my children, and my grandson. I might give the impression of being a patient and caring and compassionate person, but unless you see me on a regular basis, and not just when I’m trying to sound good, you have no way of knowing whether or not that is the case.

Internet ‘communities’ can be very gullible and very deceptive. I have not been in the habit of filling my blog with stories about difficulties in my parish or my relationship with those who are ‘over me’ in the ministry – mainly because I think those issues should be worked out face to face with those who are directly involved, not gossiped about to disembodied people with screen names and avatars in the anonymous world of the Internet. But the real problem, of course, is that there are two sides to every story, and unless a blogger has an unusual level of honesty and self-knowledge, it’s only natural that what you get from them is their side of the story. The pastor who is having difficulty with his or her congregation will usually give the impression of being the patient and compassionate shepherd (or the brave and visionary leader, depending on the culture of the church!); it’s the congregation, of course, who are unappreciative or unsupportive or unsympathetic or unresponsive or just downright unChristian. If the blog is being run by a member of the congregation, then, naturally, you’ll get the opposite viewpoint. A priest having trouble with their bishop will unavoidably tell the story in terms that make it clear what an unfeeling ecclesiocrat the bishop actually is (and some clerical blogs are anonymous precisely for the reason of allowing the cleric to blow off steam like this). Unless one of the regular commentators is actually part of the situation and is willing to blow the whistle from time to time and say, “Look, that’s not actually the whole story…”, the others are none the wiser.

Experience teaches us that life is messy, and people are not just one-dimensional. There are very rarely goodies and baddies; there are just ordinary flawed human beings, people who get some things right and some things wrong, people who are sometimes loving and sometimes selfish. There are not usually ‘haters’ and ‘fascists’ and ‘revisionists’ and ‘leftists’; there are human beings trying to pay their mortgages and do a reasonable job at work and be better parents and love God as best they know how. And of course, when it comes to the real flesh-and-blood people in my family, and my parish, and my circle of friends, I see that flawed and yet admirable humanity most clearly and am most likely to cut people some slack because of it (or, at other times, pluck up my courage and challenge them).

It’s more difficult to do that in the blogosphere, because there we don’t encounter the real multi-dimensional persons who exist outside the ‘matrix’. We encounter what they present to the world, but we have no way of knowing how real their persona actually is, and we will never know that until we wash dishes with them, or play music with them, or receive communion regularly with them, or get our hands dirty cleaning up the churchyard with them. Until that happens, we’d be wise to remind ourselves that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people we’re talking to online, and there’s probably a lot they’re not telling us (intentionally or unintentionally) in the stories they share.

Now is a good time to buy a Waterson:Carthy, Martin Carthy, or Norma Waterson CD.

If you had been thinking of sampling a CD from British folk veterans Martin Carthy and/or Norma Waterson, now would be a good time to do it. Norma has been sick for the last three or four months, Martin has been at her side in hospital, and so there has been no income coming in from touring. Here’s the full story:

This page is intended to give brief details of any benefit events being organised for Norma Waterson, so that others wishing to put on an event can avoid clashes with other, similar ones.  It is, at the moment, very brief – but we hope that it will fill up as time passes.

To clarify a point that several people have raised: this is being done with Martin Carthy’s approval.

For anyone not au fait with what’s prompted this, the following should help:

Many MT readers will be aware that Norma Waterson has been critically ill in hospital for the past three months.  Last November, towards the end of the brilliant ‘Gift’ tour, Norma got an infection in her knee.  She went to the closest hospital, Warrington, where they prescribed strong antibiotics, to be taken as an in-patient.  Two days later she was on dialysis and a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit.  Our dear Norma had been in the ICU for 11 weeks! with Martin by her side, loving her and making sure she is getting all the necessary attention.

She has at last been moved to an ordinary ward, but the journey back to normality will be a long climb; of course if she could climb there’d be no problem, but after 12 weeks in bed there’s not much of her body that has any muscle power at all.  And having had a tracheostomy in her throat for most of that time, she’s not even talking or eating normally yet.

As well as an appalling physical and emotional situation for the family, there is the little matter of finance when the breadwinners are unable to work (Martin has only been able to do 3 or 4 gigs in all that time!).  Some of their friends in music – being able now to think about the future rather than just the present – have realised what an awful extra burden this has/will consitute, and are organising benefit events.  Keep your eyes and your purses open, and please consider the possiblities for your club or organisation.  We will try to liaise with all such organisers, and with Alan Bearman, their Agent, to see that things go smoothly, and don’t clash with each other.  If you do consider organising some kind of benefit event, please let us know.

Thanks to the Musical Traditions page – go there for a full list of benefit concerts and events. None of the concerts are on our side of the Atlantic, so those of us in North America who love Martin and Norma and their music can only donate to the PayPal site, or buy a few more CDs.

If you’ve never heard Martin and Norma’s music, look them up at we7 and have a listen. They are two of the greatest living English folk musicians and Martin is one of the most original guitarists playing today. Why not take this opportunity to buy some of their music and help them out in their time of need?

 

Catching up a bit

I don’t very often write personal news items on this blog, but every now and again I feel like doing it. This won’t be very polished and it won’t be in any particular order. Here are a few of the things that are going on in my life.

On February 1st I celebrated my eleventh anniversary as pastor of St. Margaret’s church. It seems a long time now since the Tuesday morning when I started in this parish; many people have come and gone and the congregation is very different now than it was back in the year 2000. In the last couple of years we’ve had a real influx of families with very young children, and we’re very thankful that they find our church to be a relaxed and welcoming place for them. After eleven years it’s a joy to know a congregation as well as I know this one, and to be well-known by them as well. My friend Reed Fleming has been reading a book about the benefits of stability; I concur (a fella called Eugene Peterson has been saying the same thing to pastors for quite a while now!).

We passed another significant anniversary on January 21st when our first (and, at the moment, only) grandson Noah turned one year old. He is walking all over the place now and it is a joy to watch him grow and learn. He’s a really busy boy and likes to be doing things, but every now and then I manage to catch one of his hugs, and they’re precious when they’re on offer. He likes music and playing with toy cars and walking in circles around the house, and he seems to like his Grandma and Grandpa too.

Reading-wise I’ve been slowly working my way through the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, which I’ve never read much before. I’m up to the book of Numbers now, and I read from the Psalms every day too, and am amazed at how much I’m enjoying it. I read aloud whenever I can and enjoy savouring the words in my mouth; I find the poetic language really adds to the experience. I don’t expect I’ll make the AV my main version but I will be glad to have read it through.

Marci read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and really enjoyed it; she got me into it as well and I’ve read it through once. I’m not sure if I’m going to take on a full-blown year-long happiness project as Gretchen did, but she has me convinced of a few of her central ideas – especially the idea that working on your own happiness is not a selfish thing, because happy people tend to be more generous and outgoing, and are more likely to make a positive difference to others. I also like her emphasis on doing as a road to feeling, rather than the other way around (don’t wait until you feel good before doing the right thing; do it anyway, and the feeling will probably follow along). And I like the fact that she quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson so much! Her blog is worth reading and it always gives me a lift.

Last weekend Dana Wylie and I presented a workshop which we called ‘Discovering the World of Traditional Folk Music‘ at Expressionz Café here in Edmonton. About fifteen people took part, aged from early teens to early sixties, and it was a participatory experience from the start. Dana and I shared our own experiences of discovering traditional folk music, and we then raised the question ‘What is it?’ I played ‘The Cruel Brother‘ and got people to analyse what made it different from the average contemporary song; people started diving in with their ideas, and we were off to the races! After spending an hour or more on the distinctive features of traditional songs, we turned to the sources and talked about the most significant recordings, print resources, and Internet sites. We then spent a significant chunk of time on alternative guitar tunings before cruising to a close with a consideration of the history of one of the best known traditional songs, ‘Scarborough Fair’. Dana and I were gratified by the enthusiasm of the participants and it was a special joy to see so many young people there.

On the negative side, I’ve been having a few health challenges lately. Pain in my left arm took me to the doctor before Christmas; subsequent x-rays showed arthritis in the neck which was pinching nerves. There’s no real cure for this although physiotherapy helps a bit; if you see me walking in a strangely elongated fashion, that’s because apparently my relaxed slouch is not good for the neck bones! Holding your head high really is the better way! More recently I’ve been having some problems with my left eye; apparently it’s a common thing with advancing age, but the vitreous has begun to detach from the retina, and has snagged a blood vessel on the way down, so there’s a whole dirty curtain of little dots and a few blotches of blood swimming across my field of vision right now. I have perfectly clear vision if I just close my left eye!

A member of our congregation died last night. He was in his eighties and had been suffering from cancer for a couple of years (his second bout with cancer). For the past few weeks I had been taking communion to him and his wife in their home once a week, and last week when I was there he remarked about how much peace and comfort the sacrament gave him. Last night after he died the family and I gathered around his bed to read scripture and pray, and his funeral will be at our church next week. Just by virtue of being a pastor, people invite me into these significant events in their lives all the time. It’s a privilege and a trust, and I am grateful for it.

There are many other things to give thanks for. I’m happy to have been married for over thirty-one years to a wise, caring and grace-living woman who has a lot of patience for the failings of her very imperfect husband. I’m thankful that my kids seem to love their parents and each other as well, and that we see a lot more of them than some other parents I know. I’m thankful that my Mum and Dad have a computer and we can keep in touch by email and send them photographs regularly so that they feel a connection with our daily lives even though they are so far away. I’m thankful for the circle of friends who make my life so enjoyable, both near and far away, and for the chance to play music and listen to music regularly with some of those friends. I’m thankful for a worthwhile job serving a good congregation who pay me decently and treat me well and who have become my primary spiritual family. And I’m thankful to be a follower of Jesus and for the continual comfort and challenge I get from his vision of God and God’s dream for the world.

 

Just the basics of following Jesus

An American woman named Jessie was once touring England with a team of American handbell ringers. One night on their tour they were attending a formal dinner, and Jessie noticed that there was no napkin at her place setting, so she asked one of the waiters if he could please bring her a napkin. He seemed a little surprised, but nonetheless he went off to comply with her request. He seemed to be taking a long time about it, and Jessie wondered what was happening. Eventually the head waiter came to her with a strange looking package in his hand. “We have no idea why you would need this, Ma’am”, he said, “but here is your napkin”. He then proceeded to hand her a baby’s diaper.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have remarked that the English and the Americans were ‘two peoples divided by a common language’. One of the problems of being divided by a common language, of course, is that while your friend may be using the same vocabulary as you, she is probably using a different dictionary. You assume that you know what she is talking about, but then along comes an incident like the one Jessie experienced, and you realise that words can have many different meanings (in case you’re wondering, in England Jessie should have asked for a ‘serviette’!).

What about the word ‘love’? Surely we all know what that means, don’t we? After all, we’ve just had Valentine’s Day! But Valentine’s Day simply illustrates the problem. The Valentine’s Day version of love is mainly about romantic feelings, or ‘falling in love’ – an experience completely beyond your control that hits you like a bolt of lightning and feels so good that you pray it lasts forever – although, of course, you know that it often doesn’t.

If you’ve been educated in the Valentine’s Day version of love, as most people in our modern world have, you will have a lot of difficulty understanding what the Bible is all about. When the Bible uses the word ‘love’ it is rarely referring to feelings at all. The Greek word for our modern concept of love, ‘eros’, is almost never used in the New Testament. Instead, the most common word is ‘agapé’, which is about actions and choices and sacrificing yourself to bless others, whether they deserve it or not, whether you feel like it or not.

And so, in the third chapter of his first letter, the old apostle John feels the need to explain to us exactly what love is. ‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 john 3:16 NRSV). Jesus’ act of self-sacrifice in giving himself on the cross to save the world defines what love looks like for followers of Jesus: it is unconditional, it is self-sacrificial, it is about actions more than feelings, and it is centred on the good of the other.

And we are called to imitate this sort of love. We may not be able to sit down and muster up a good feeling for the people around us, but that’s not the point; we can still act in a loving way toward them. John gives us an example of this right away:

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action (1 John 3:17-18).

This passage convicts me right away, because I am a person who loves words and works with words. But my words, no matter how eloquent they may be, are not impressive in God’s sight; it is my practical actions, my choosing to help those who are in need, that really count. As one of the characters in the recent miniseries of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ says, ‘It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are – it is what we do – or fail to do’.

John sums it all up for us at the end of the chapter:

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us (1 John 3:23).

Of course, this can sometimes be more complicated than it sounds. Some people talk, for instance, as if love for others means letting them get away with anything they want, but Paul’s description of love says that it ‘does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth’ (1 Corinthians 13:6). Yes, love is indeed the most important commandment, but sometimes we need God’s other commandments to give us guidance as to how exactly we should go about loving a person in a given situation.

Nonetheless, at the heart of the matter stands love as Jesus defined it: not words but actions, not feelings but choices, not self-absorption but a resolve to be a blessing to others. This is how God loves us, this is what Jesus demonstrated when he died for us, and this is how we are called to love one another.

Godlight

We walked together through the autumn woods,
her hand in mine held fast in quiet grace;
we watched a yellow leaf fall from a branch,
and drift down slowly to its resting place.

A red-capped woodpecker was darting there,
driving its beak into a grey-clad tree,
and on a bridge we stopped and stood awhile
savouring joy in all that we could see.

And all the paths we walked that peaceful day
were like the years together on the Way.

And everything we saw fulfilled its call,
its place within the wider story;
and so our love was not too plain or small
to share the God-light and the glory.

And all the paths we walked that peaceful day
were like the years together on the Way.

And everything we saw fulfilled its call,
its place within the wider story;
and so our love was not too plain or small
to share the God-light and the glory.

©Tim Chesterton, Oct. 16th, 22nd 2006

 

What I’ll be doing Saturday afternoon

Discovering the World of Traditional Folk Music
A workshop with Dana Wylie and Tim Chesterton

February 12th 2011 1 – 5 p.m. at Expressionz Café
9938 70th Avenue NW, Edmonton, Alberta

As a musician, are you looking for a huge body of material that tells great stories, has wonderful melodies, can be changed and adapted however you like, and is totally copyright-free? Welcome to the world of traditional folk music! These are the songs that were passed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years; they have been adapted endlessly in many different times and places, and continue today to inspire and delight audiences around the world.

In this workshop Dana and Tim will talk about why they are so excited about traditional folk music, how they have used it themselves, and how it has influenced their own songwriting. They will give examples of some of the most enduring songs from the tradition and how they have evolved over the centuries (using their own performances as well as audio and video recordings), and they will identify the most important resources (CDs, books, websites etc.) for people wanting to further explore the world of traditional music. Finally, because open guitar tunings often feature in this kind of music, they will demonstrate some of the most important open tunings (Drop D, DADGAD, open C, open G), share some chord charts and give examples of songs that can be played in these tunings.

Tickets are available at the door for $20.

Dana Wylie
Dana Wylie is widely considered to be one of Edmonton’s most beloved performers and songwriters, as evidenced by the recent appearance of her third and latest album, Something’s Going to Happen Here, at Number 25 on CKUA’s Top 100 for 2010 list. She has travelled and toured extensively in North America, Britain and Asia, and it was while living in England that she began to develop an ever-expanding interest in the traditional folk music of the British Isles and North America. Dana is currently working on her fourth album, which will feature a mix of original and traditional songs.
http://www.danawylie.net/

Tim Chesterton
Tim Chesterton sees himself primarily as an interpreter of traditional folk songs. He is inspired by the rich heritage of folk music – songs written in previous centuries, usually by unknown authors, and then passed down by word of mouth, moulded and re-moulded by each successive generation. Tim wants to take his place in that tradition, passing on these wonderful old songs to new audiences today. He especially loves songs that tell stories, and his own songwriting is mainly in the storytelling vein. His repertoire also includes instrumental pieces, both his own compositions and also traditional and contemporary tunes.

Tim plays solo and also shares stages regularly with good friends. His musical influences include Nic Jones, Kate Rusby, Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, James Keelaghan, John Renbourn, Planxty, Jacqui McShee and Maddy Prior.

http://www.reverbnation.com/timchesterton

 

Appalling bits of liturgy

The recent memes on CCM worship songs and on traditional hymns have got me thinking about bits of the liturgy I find the most appalling.

I should say that for the most part I’m very satisfied with the liturgy we use in Canada in our Book of Alternative Services (our church doesn’t use the Book of Common Prayer at all, although personally I don’t dislike that either). I’m what used to be called a ‘low churchman’, so I use it in simplicity rather than in what I personally think of as elaborate ritual fussiness, but I’m still grateful for it. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t bits of it that irritate me. I’l mention two: one humorous, one serious.

First, the humorous one. Am I the only one that finds the collect at ordination services wordy, pretentious, linguistically confusing, and (most serious of all) only vaguely relevant to ordinations?

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light,
look favourably on your whole Church,
that wonderful and sacred mystery.
By the effectual working of your providence,
carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation.
Let the whole world see and know
that things which were  being cast down are being raised up,
and things which had grown old are being made new,
and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord;
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

My observations about this prayer:

  1. Sorry, but isn’t it a bit pretentious, and more than a bit redundant, for the Church to ask the author of the plan of salvation to ‘carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation’? As Malcolm Muggeridge observed a long time ago in a different context, isn’t that a bit like saying ‘carry on eternity’ or ‘keep coming tomorrow’?
  2. There are times when I think that the Church is a mystery all right (!!!), but I’m not sure if it’s a ‘wonderful and sacred’ mystery, or if it’s just being intentionally confusing (example: what does it say about the commitment of the Anglican Communion to communicating the Gospel that the only words on our international flag are in New Testament Greek – a language no one speaks?).
  3. Am I the only one who hears the word ‘Tranquility’ and thinks immediately of Neil Armstrong and the first moon landing?
  4. Apart from the fact that we undoubtedly ordain some rather strange people, what does the whole part about cast down things being raised up and old things being made new etc. etc. have to do with the rest of the ordination service?
  5. Didn’t any of these people learn how to write decent English prose before the Church made them liturgists?

Thus the humorous part. Now, the serious bit. Undoubtedly the part of the liturgy that irritates me most is the lectionaries – both the Revised Common Lectionary that we use on Sundays and the Daily Office Lectionary that we use on weekdays.

Every Sunday we read four scripture readings – an Old Testament reading, a psalm, a New Testament reading, and a reading from the Gospels. Often, especially with the New Testament readings, the passages take the form of ‘short snippets’ plucked out from the middle of a flowing argument and somehow expected to make sense to the hearers, many of whom have never read the whole argument and are only vaguely aware of the original context at all (example: the New Testament reading in a couple of weeks is 1 Corinthians 4:1-5).

When the ‘Common Lectionary’ (since ‘Revised‘) was first introduced in the Anglican Church of Canada in the 1980s, much was made of the argument that ‘over three years, if a person came to church every Sunday, they would hear the vast majority of the Bible read out loud in church’. Does anything demonstrate the naivete of many professional liturgists more than this – that they base a liturgical provision on the assumption that twenty-first century people are going to come to church every Sunday? How’s that going in your parish? In mine, most people come to church once or twice a month, which means that not only will they only hear five verses from 1 Corinthians 4 when they come on Feb. 20th, but they probably won’t have heard the nine verses from 1 Corinthians 3 (again, not the whole chapter) that was read the previous week. And when we get around to reading the second part of 1 Corinthians next year (1 Corinthians is read throughout the three years of the lectionary in January/February), they certainly aren’t going to remember the first part that was read this year!

And let’s remember that, for well over half the liturgical year, the four readings have nothing to do with each other (well, that’s not quite true – the psalm usually follows the theme of the Old Testament reading). I know, I know, it’s a favourite sport of preachers to try to find that elusive connection, but if there is a connection there it’s entirely accidental, because for Ordinary Time the three main readings are on independent cycles.

But there is a wider issue here. In one of the earliest descriptions of Christian liturgy we possess, Justin Martyr describes how, when the local church assembled on a Sunday in Rome in the second century A.D. the writings of the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles were read ‘as long as time permits’ (First Apology, Chapter 67). Now we might quibble as to exactly what that means, but it seems plain to me that substantial readings were in view here. And this goes along with the nature of the books being read. If I receive a letter from a friend, I don’t read it in isolated paragraphs, a week at a time; I read the whole thing in one go, or at least in substantial chunks. And surely the reading of scripture in substantial chunks would allow the hearers to make better sense of its original context?

So I have a modest proposal toward this end: over the three years of the lectionary cycle, let’s cover the same amount of scripture, but have fewer and longer readings. Yes, we’ll always have a Gospel reading, but let’s preface it with either an Old Testament or a New Testament (i.e. a reading from the letters, Acts, or Revelation) reading – but a longer one than we currently use, so that we cover the same amount of scripture over the three years. I think its good to remember that chapter divisions are older than verse divisions in the Bible; maybe we should have stuck with the chapter divisions and left it at that!

As for the Daily Office lectionary, the compilers of our B.A.S. had the faint hope that people who pray the Daily Office were going to stop and do a meditation on the readings, so they intentionally shortened them to make this easier. I wonder how many people who pray the Daily Office actually do that? When Cranmer put the old Prayer Book daily lectionary together, he had a more modest aim: getting people familiar with the content of scripture and the big sweep of its message. To this end, most of the Old Testament was read once and the entire New Testament three times in the course of a year, and the Book of Psalms was prayed through once a month. Furthermore, realising that the moveable date of Easter made it very confusing to base a daily lectionary on the liturgical year, he made the very sensible provision of basing it on the calendar year – which makes the 1662 Church of England Prayer Book daily lectionary the simplest to use in the entire Anglican Communion. In my view, the sooner we go back to that philosophy of daily Bible reading, the better. I am sick and tired of reading small snippets of the Bible in my daily readings, and in fact I now rarely use the Daily Office lectionary at all.

So these are my personal ‘irritants’ when it comes to liturgy. I’d be interested to hear other people’s candidates!

The appalling CCM songs meme

There’s a meme going around Christian circles on the Internet about CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) songs. The gist of it is as follows: ‘Please try to name ONE (I know, there are so many to choose from) CCM praise song that you find unbearable and at least 2-3 reasons why, pointing to specific lyrics if you must’. Responses have appeared from Clayboy, Elizaphanian (briefly!), Phil’s Treehouse, Banksyboy, to name a few.

This theme is like a red rag to a bull for me, because there really are many so-called ‘worship songs’ that I find not only banal and trite but also genuinely irritating and even ‘appalling’. Not that I know even a fraction of the songs out there; at our church we sing fairly traditional music from ‘Hymns Old and New’ , with a supplementary binder of praise songs ranging from seventies material to almost the present day. But I’ve been around enough services where the CCM approach is used, and although this style does seem genuinely to engage a lot of younger people, there are some serious drawbacks which I’ll address in a moment.

And yet… and yet… in the 1970s my own Christian faith came alive as a result of the charismatic movement, and many of the songs we sang then were indeed ‘trite, banal, and perhaps even genuinely irritating and appalling’. How about “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart”? Or “The Bell Song”? Or “The Joy of the Lord is My Strength”, whose fourth verse went like this:

‘Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
The joy of the Lord is my strength!’

But here’s the thing: as a teenager and a new Christian I loved this stuff! I found most hymns stuffy, boring and (in many cases) virtually incomprehensible (what on earth does ‘ineffably sublime’ mean, anyway?). In contrast to that, the new stuff being promoted by groups like the Fisherfolk was simple, direct, enjoyable, accessible and refreshing. And I’m so grateful that I became a Christian in a church where this stuff was welcomed. I’m pretty sure that if my nascent faith had had to deal with a purely traditional worship style I’d very quickly have gotten bored out of my tree.

So I want to be careful about dismissing the CCM praise songs genre, simply because the sort of criticisms some people level against it sound disturbingly like the things some people said about our music back in the seventies when twelve-string guitars and Arran sweaters first arrived in our eleventh century Norman church in Southminster! The question of what exactly constitutes worship music is a slippery and elusive one, and I need to remind myself that in the end what is really important is that people focus on the living God and go away with their lives transformed as a result.

Nonetheless, I do have a few questions about much of what I hear sung in churches today:

Is it really worship if the subject of a song is not God, but rather our feelings about God?
Let me give an example of what I’m talking about:

You know that I love you
You know that I want to know you so much more
More than I have before

These words are from my heart
These words are not made up
I will live for you
I am devoted to you

King of Majesty, I have one desire
Just to be with you my Lord
Just to be with you my Lord

Jesus you are the Saviour of my soul
and forever and ever I’ll give my praises to you.

Now, quite apart from some rather strange (if ‘these words are not made up’, how precisely did they get onto the page?) and even downright dishonest (“I have one desire” – really? No, really? Does your wife know that?) statements, notice that the entire attention of the worshipper singing these words is the state of his or her own emotions. Is this worship, to focus on my own gut, rather than on the glory and majesty of God (who is glorious and majestic whether or not I feel his glory and majesty)?

Is worship in which the most frequent pronoun is the singular ‘I’ really faithful to the Biblical vision of Christian worship?
Quite simply, Biblical worship is primarily corporate: the people of God coming together to join in words of praise and in ritual action. The worshipping agent in the Bible is not primarily an ‘I’ but a ‘We’. Not that the Bible doesn’t contain prayers and psalms written in the first person, but they do not dominate as they do in contemporary worship music.

Interestingly, the old Book of Common Praise (1938) of the Anglican Church of Canada contained a small section entitled ‘Hymns Chiefly for Personal Use’. Is it not true to say that in a book of contemporary worship songs, that section would comprise probably 80% of the material? And is this a healthy balance?

Is a genre of worship music that virtually ignores the Christian stories really true to the Bible (which is overwhelmingly composed of narrative)?
Here’s an exercise: take a Sunday in which you know that a well-known biblical story (other than the crucifixion) is going to be read in the service at your church. Now try to find a contemporary worship song in which that story is sung. In most cases it simply can’t be done, because the songs do not exist.

In contrast, older hymn books included many songs that recounted biblical stories. These songs, once again, helped to focus the attention of the worshippers away from the state of their own entrails and onto the great objective story of God’s love told in the Bible and supremely in Christ.

Is the intimate really the best and most appropriate tone to use in worship of God?
‘I’m longing for you’ – ‘I’m desperate for you’ – ‘Hold me close, put your arms around me – draw me near nearer to your side’; it has often been observed that the God (or, more frequently, the Jesus) addressed in these lyrics sounds more like my girlfriend than the exalted Lord and Creator of the universe. Where’s the genuinely shattering spiritual experience expressed by the author of Revelation when he saw the risen Jesus in a vision and said “I fell at his feet as though dead”? Where’s Isaiah’s “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King”? (“…and he was high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple”.) Does the metaphor of the romantic relationship have quite the dominance in the biblical approach to God that it does in contemporary worship music?

Do the authors of contemporary worship songs understand the difference between performance and participation?
I go to a lot of concerts and gigs, and I often sing along with the songs that I know, but the purpose of the concert is not for me to sing along; the purpose is to listen to the music, and hence the stage setup and the amplification draw attention to the performer’s voice, not mine. And is it not true to say that this is the natural setting for much contemporary worship music?

Here’s the thing: tunes written to be performed can be idiosyncratic, can bounce all over the place, can come down off the beat, can have bridges that are only sung once in the song, can have instrumental solos – all features of performance music. But congregational songs are different. They need to have memorable tunes (test of a memorable tune: can it be sung unaccompanied and still sound beautiful?) that can be easily learned and sung by a non-musical congregation. And here’s the crux of the matter: in much contemporary worship music, the congregation is singing along with the band (which has the amplification system to back it up), whereas, it seems to me, in the older approach to worship the instrumentalist (pianist, organist or whatever) was playing along with the congregation, to support their singing.

Finally, what does it say about the value we place on the God we worship, when we can’t be bothered to take a little more care with our lyrics?
I’m not trying to sound like a snob here, but I can’t help but contrast much of what I hear in contemporary worship music with my monthly experience at a songwriters’ circle here in Edmonton. And I can’t help thinking that much of what gets written and recorded in contemporary worship music would never make it past the first ten minutes in our songwriters’ circle. The rhymes are bad or non-existent, the metaphors are mixed and slippery and inappropriate, and the overwhelming impression, for the most part, is that the lyrics were just dashed off and recorded without any substantial time being taken for that essential feature of the songwriting experience – the rewrite!

 

Music is a sensitive issue, because for many people it is the language of the heart. But having said that, let’s remember that the metaphor of the ‘heart’ is a very slippery one. In modern times it means the emotions, but that was not the meaning it carried in biblical times. In the New Testament it was the intestines that were seen as the seat of the emotions, not the heart (hence the King James Version phrase ‘bowels of mercy’!). ‘Heart’ meant something much closer to what we would now call ‘the will’ – the seat of our choices and commitments.

So the purpose of genuine biblical worship is not just to arouse our emotions but to change the direction of our lives by orienting our will toward genuine Christian discipleship. And this discipleship is not primarily about ‘me’; it’s about God and my neighbour. Worship music ought to help orient our lives in this direction, and I think that intelligent Christians have a right to insist that our worship songwriters understand this. Too often, I’m afraid that they don’t.

Why do I love traditional folk music so much? Part 2: What is it anyway?

At the end of my first post on this subject, I said that in this next section I was going to talk about what it is that I find so attractive and compelling about traditional folk music. However, I find that it is hard to do that without at least attempting to define what I mean by ‘traditional folk music’. So here are a few defining features of the genre.

Passed on.
The word ‘tradition’ comes from a Latin word that means ‘to hand down’ or ‘to pass on’. Traditional folk music is music that has been passed on from one person to another, or handed down from one generation to another.

Traditional folk songs have been handed down to us from previous generations, sometimes over many centuries. During that ‘handing down’ process, each successive generation has left its mark on the songs. They have been changed and adapted, written and rewritten; old tunes have been forgotten and new tunes created. Segments of one song have been re-used in another; stories originally set on one side of the Atlantic have been relocated (with appropriate adaptations) on the other. Who wrote these songs? It seems most appropriate to reply: humanity wrote them, and consequently they belong to humanity.

Music by and for the amateur
Nowadays most of the music we hear was created in order to be a source of income for someone. But traditional songs originated in a time before music was created for commercial purposes; rather, songs were put together for the enjoyment of one’s friends and neighbours, in the local pub or community hall or anywhere else where people gathered to enjoy the talents of the local amateur musicians.

This does not mean, of course, that we are not grateful for the hugely talented professional musicians who keep the candle of traditional music burning brightly in the world today (many of whose songs have featured on this blog); it does mean that we recognise that they are doing what is necessary to interpret the world of traditional music to a contemporary audience.

Storytelling
In commercial music today one of the most common forms is what I call ’emotional autobiography’. These songs often take the shape of a sort of letter from the singer to the one being addressed (the lost love, perhaps), in which the singer (‘I’) says the things he or she would really like to say to the lost love (‘you’); the audience is invited to listen in to the message (of love, anger, regret etc.). Often, the actual story of the relationship is not told; the emotion, rather than the story, is what the song is about. In fact, it is not uncommon for there to be details in the song which only make sense to the songwriter and to the person who is being addressed in the song.

In contrast, while it would be inaccurate to claim that traditional songs are always stories, yet it would be fair to say that the narrative genre is the most common form of traditional song. Someone has commented that these songs were the action and adventure movies of the day; attention was given, not so much to getting every word exactly right, as to telling the story in a compelling way. One song collector told of hearing a traditional singer perform the same song three different times and never giving an entirely identical rendition of it; the exact form of the wording was not as important as the tale itself.

Examples of this sort of song are so common in the tradition as to be impossible to list exhaustively; see for instance The House Carpenter, Sir Patrick Spens, William Glenn, Clyde Water, the Cruel Brother, John Hardy etc. In these songs, while emotion is definitely present, it is often not explicitly spelled out. Rather, the focus is on the story, which has the power to evoke the emotion in the listener.

True stories?
But are the stories true? Did they actually happen to someone at some point in time? Maybe, and maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter. Although many traditional songs are told in the first person, the ‘I’ in the song is not usually the singer; rather, it is a fictional person who the singer is (in a theatrical sense) ‘playing’ while they are performing the song. This is in contrast to much contemporary songwriting in which the singer-songwriter introduces a song by saying ‘This song is about a time in my life when…’.

Many people today would see a song as being somehow less authentic if it was not ‘true’ in the literal sense. It’s perhaps a difficult thing to remember that this is a very recent idea, and not an idea that creators in other genres ever worry about. Shakespeare certainly didn’t lose any sleep over the fact that none of the stories he told had actually happened to him, and (so far as I know) neither does John Grisham. The idea that a songwriter could actually make up a story and write a song about it seems very foreign to many people today, but it was probably the most common form of songwriting at the time traditional songs were being created.

Songs to be sung
This perhaps seems a little oxymoronic – aren’t all songs written to be sung? Perhaps – but is the human voice the primary instrument? Listen to musicians talking about their performances; how many of them talk about ‘playing’ songs rather than ‘singing’ them? What does that tell us about the relative importance attached to the singing of the song and the playing of the instrument? But in traditional songs, the most important ‘instrument’ really is the human voice.

People who think that folk music started with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the 60s, or Pete Seeger in the 50s, or even Woodie Guthrie in the 30s and 40s, often assume that the guitar has always been essential to the genre. But lovers of traditional folk music know that it’s a very recent addition to the tradition; it was the folk revivalists of the 50s who first added it. Before then, folk music was generally accompanied by fiddles, or accordions, or flutes and whistles, or pianos, or – strange though it may seem to modern ears – sung unaccompanied.

I’ve often thought that this is the acid test: can a song be sung unaccompanied and still sound good? Many songs would fail that test. Take a wonderful rock and roll song like the Beatles’ ‘Back to the USSR’, for instance, and strip away the guitars and drums and sing it a capella; it just doesn’t work. The tune is actually quite boring, with very little melodic variation throughout. This is because many modern songwriters start by putting together a chord progression and some lyrics, but don’t pay a lot of attention to melody (not that this is often true of Lennon and McCartney, I hasten to add!).

Take a few minutes to visit Jon Boden’s A Folk Song a Day blog and listen to some of the songs Jon has recorded for his year-long folk song project. Most of them are sung unaccompanied, but the tunes are so melodically powerful that you hardly notice the lack of instruments.

In these melodies the chord structure tends to be rather simple (in contrast to jazz, for instance); bridges are almost unknown, and choruses (where present) are usually very singable. Some of the older songs use lesser-known modes such as the Dorian or Myxolidian. Another common form is the ABBA structure (i.e in a four-line verse, the first and last lines are melodically identical and the second and third lines are melodically identical).

I’ll stop there and continue this in a day or two…